Detroit  WFL

Wheels  - 1974

“Sonny” Grandelius, former Michigan State football great assumed the General Manager post, hoping to reproduce the success he had as head coach of the Colorado University Buffaloes. Head Coach Dan Boisture was another Detroit area football great, having been an All America end at the University Of Detroit and a long time assistant of the hugely successful Michigan State teams of Duffy Daugherty’s years. His short stint as head coach at Eastern Michigan also helped to secure a home field at the University but he was at least aware of the fact that night games and thus television exposure would be an impossibility due to the paucity of stadium lighting. Former Detroit Lion defensive back Tommy Vaughn came in as the defensive backfield coach and offensive coordinator Ed Chlebek added to the “I’m from Detroit” feel of the team having been a high school legend at Detroit’s Western High School before starring at Western Michigan University. The running backs coach was Cleveland “Chick” Harris, who is the current Houston Texan running backs coach.


The Wheels made an honest attempt to sign players of ability although their two-week open tryout camp was a bust. On March 9, 1974 the public call for talent was announced and before the tryout camp and pre-camp sessions had ended, six-hundred-sixty-five men of varied size, shape, and physical condition passed before Boisture and his staff with a yield of zero. Not one player from the open try-outs was invited to camp. They were able to sign only three of their thirty-six draft choices. They brought in former University Of Houston great Warren McVea who had been a contributing force on Hank Stram’s KC Chief’s Super Bowl team. McVea was to that point in time, perhaps the second best running back to ever come out of Texas high school football after the legendary “Sugarland Express”, Ken Hall whose all time rushing records posted in the early 1950s still stand to this day. McVea led his San Antonio Brackenridge team to the 1962 state title. What is still considered to be the greatest high school game of all time in Texas and perhaps anywhere, was played on November 29, 1963 as McVea’s undefeated Brackenridge squad faced off with the undefeated team of rival San Antonio Robert E. Lee High School led by future University Of Texas star Linus Baer. McVea was already considered one of the best players in the country but after a heart stopping loss to Lee in which he gained 215 yards on 21 carries and scored six touchdowns on runs of 54, 14, 48, 20, 45, and 4 yards and literally was the entire team’s offense, McVea could have gone to college anywhere. He starred at the University Of Houston and earned a reputation as a great all around talent. As a fourth round draft choice of the Bengals he was expected to make a big splash in his inaugural year but fell far short of expectations with only 133 yards rushing. Rumors of an “attitude problem” or a “personality clash” with Bengal Head Coach Paul Brown were noted and McVea was in a Chiefs’ uniform for the 1969 season. He was a key member of Stram’s great teams but injuries had slowed him by 1973. The Wheels thought they could build an offense around this big name back and were more than happy to give him his requested number 6 jersey. After tiring of McVea’s refusal to show up on time for practice, his number 6 jersey was last seen on the back of one of the team’s ball boys and McVea was released to the Houston franchise. Quarterback Bubba Wyche out of Tennessee was felt to be a star-in-the-making as was running back Sam Scarber, former St. Louis area high school phenom who later starred at New Mexico. While the relatively no-name make up of the personnel led to a dismal record, the fault did not lie with the “football intelligence quotient” of this team as quite a few successful coaches came from the ranks of its players. Harris of course had been a key staff member of the Carolina Panthers and as noted, with the Texans since the latter team’s inception. Running back Lee Fobbs Jr. has made a name for himself as an excellent offensive backfield coach at a number of schools and is presently with Texas A&M. Starting defensive back Rocky Long has taken his intense style back to his alma mater at the University Of New Mexico as its head coach. Long came out of New Mexico as a quarterback who had also played defensive back and upon graduation played for the British Columbia Lions in 1972 and ’73. After the Wheels hit the skids he returned to Canada to play for them again from 1975 to 1977. Terry Hoeppner, another defensive back out of small Franklin College in Indiana is now the head coach at the University Of Indiana after doing a terrific job at Miami Of Ohio.


Unfortunately, it did not take long for the woefully under financed Wheels to hit major bumps in the road. While Boisture was “confident that the Wheels will be more than just a competitive football team” their on the field low lights of a 1-13 won-lost record, a paltry offensive production of not quite 15 points per game, and not one team member other than Long (punt returns) close to the league statistical standards sealed their fate. By mid- September the S.O.S. was sounded. Practices were called off because the laundry service would not wash uniforms. One of the team owners suggested the possible saving of money by housing the team in a series of tents set up on city-owned Belle Island. Players had to purchase their own tape or borrow from those they knew on opposing teams. When a potential ownership group failed to come forward to purchase the Wheels and all of the mounting debt and instead purchased the suffering New York Stars franchise, the team folded, bankruptcy declared on September 24th. The official date of dissolution is noted as October 7, 1974 but in the days leading up to that, players and coaches were removing their uniforms and other personal items from the locker room, trying to stay one step ahead of the sheriffs who were coming in to satisfy the claims of creditors.


The Wheels uniforms were beautiful with one of the best color combinations the league had. Black jerseys with yellow numbers outlined in an orange-tinged red and sleeve stripes to match made for a memorable appearance. The yellow helmets with the wide red stripe flanked by thinner black stripes had a great logo although even today you can engender a great deal of conversation by interpreting that wonderful logo. A tire in the middle of a lower case “d?” Was it a musical note in honor of Motown and/or Mrs. Edwards? It was never made clear. The Wheels also had the distinction of using the great colored Dungard masks on many of their helmets, one more touch of elegance that was contradictory to their performance.  Back...


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